Monday, 24 January 2011

Roadwork Library: Cars by Stephen Bayley.

Weighing in at 6lb 2oz this is a tome of considerable stature and presence. The year before last, while Christmas Shopping for “other people” every time I passed into a bookshop this spellbindingly presented volume caught my gaze, and having the name Stephen Bayley embossed into the spine served to further arouse my curiosity. My girlfriend bought it for me as a particularly generous Christmas gift, and it has proudly featured in my library ever since.

After removing the manuscript itself from its tight, protective womb, the way it feels in your hands, with its organic, human, skin like finish, is almost a synonym for the aim of the book itself. The Tom Wolfe derived subtitle “Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything”, which may come over as slightly pretentious, actually sums up what Mr Bayley has commented on throughout its many pages.

This is not a book for people who want to know more about cars. This is a book for people who already have heads full of pointless numbers and jargon, who have already decided their own opinions, likes and dislikes regarding any car you care to mention. This is a book that seeks to explore what cars mean. 

Chronologically, from 1908's Model T to 2003's E60 5 Series, it explores vehicles as diverse as the Panhard 24CT and Nissan Cube, variously discussing issues such as their designers inspiration, the public reaction to the car, or the cultural significance the defining achievement of each of car featured.

Mr Bayley is universally acknowledged as a very clever man. His opinions are so well backed up with empirical research as to become borderline fact. His relationship with the industry is such that he doesn’t have to make guesses if he’s unsure, the great and the good are on his speed-dial, solid answers are only a call away.

I am always impressed when a book teaches me new things. This book has enough throw-away trivia knitted into its text to polish anybody’s knowledge to a mirror finish, did you know that, on developing the '66 Olds Toronado, “...engineers evaluated an E-Type, a Corvette, a Ferrari and a racing Porsche 904, but did not understand these cars and had them lurching around at 20mph in fifth gear...”?

But, as with many of the best things in life, I have a love-hate relationship with Cars; it's not the easiest book to get along with. My own writing style can tend towards the wordy; I'm keen on the occasional multi-syllabic verbal onslaught, but I have to doff my cap to Mr Bayley for his insistance in seemingly trying to use every long, dusty word in the English language in writing this book. He is justifiably proud of his vocabulary but you can't help but wonder if he's being wilfully verbose just for his own amusement.

Incredibly heavy in both production and weight, sometimes the book comes comes over as slightly too clever for its own good. Formally layed out and monochrome througout, each car gets equal representation on two double spread pages. Each car has a beautifully captured side profile alongside the short text on the first spread, then five further images on the next. The only drawback is that the photographer seems not of have had quite the same understanding of each car's form and detailing as Bayley did, as a result the choice of subject matter in these images can seem a little awry on occasion (surely the design of the drivers seat was not one of the design highlights of the Rover P6?).

If this comes across as nit-picking, it is. Cars is undoubtedly an essential title for those who wish to push their automotive knowledge further into the realms of holistics and cultural heritage. Stephen Bayley has, I will grudgingly accept, produced a historical document of some merit.

Cars by Stephen Bayley is published by Conran Octopus, under the ISBN code 978-1-84091-504-4